Sophia Kamveris, MS, RDN
The ABC's of Reading Food Labels
I admit it. Reading food labels, and more importantly, knowing what they mean, requires patience and an advanced degree wouldn’t hurt! Every now and then, I circle back to the basics about what to look for on a food label. For today’s lesson, we are going to just look at sugars and (..ahem) whole grains.
First of all, product ingredients on a label are listed in descending order by weight— they go from the highest to the lowest amount. The first three ingredients will make up the bulk of the product, so scanning these ingredients can give you an overall sense of a product’s nutritional profile. So, pay particular attention to those.
My first rule of thumb is that if there’s a huge list of ingredients, and you can’t pronounce most of them, then put the product back on the shelf. It’s good odds that the product is highly processed, so save yourself the aggravation!
The Nutrition Facts Panel provides key nutrient information but I teach my patients to look beyond that; and to read ingredient listings, especially for cereals and breads, because manufacturers are adding ingredients like inulin, chicory root, soluble corn fiber, maltodextrin, and polydextrose to these foods to increase the fiber content on the Panel. While some of these may have pre-biotic benefits which are good for the gut health, the bulk of them will not have any positive effects on stool regularity, managing cholesterol, or lowering blood sugars like good ol’ intact (i.e. unprocessed) fiber does.
Looking at sugar on a label reminds me of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood—the bad guy is dressed up to look like something else. Think of sugar the same way. It can be listed in many forms on a food label. It’s pretty easy to figure out if the word sugar is listed as an ingredient (i.e. beet sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, coconut sugar). But it also comes in syrup form (honey, carob syrup high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, malt syrup, maple syrup, rice syrup). And then there’s the more natural forms that end in “ose” (fructose in fruits; lactose in milk; galactose, glucose, maltose). Sugar alcohols are added to act as low calorie sweeteners in a lot of food products. They are made from a combination of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules (xylitol, erythritol, maltitol, sorbitol, isomalt). Other less obvious sugars include barley malt, malt powder, molasses, maltodextrin, and dextran.
Of note, the American Heart Association recommends keeping “Added Sugar” to 25-36 grams per day. If you want a good visual of what that means, then divide the total number of sugar by 4 to turn it into actual teaspoons of sugar. Yup, pretend you are dipping a teaspoon into a jar of sugar!
Daily Recommendations are as follows:
Men: 36 grams = 9 teaspoons of added sugar
Women: 25 grams = 6 teaspoons of added sugar
This is another source of confusion on a food label. Sophie’s rule of thumb #2: If it doesn’t say “whole” or “whole grain” as the first ingredient, chances are the product is refined. Even though a label says “Made with whole grains,” the product may contain very little whole grains. Check the ingredients list — if whole grains aren’t in the first two to three ingredients, the amount is negligible. Other sources of confusion include:
Sounds good, right? But it only means that a product contains more than one type of grain, and they can be refined.
Fortified or Enriched means that some nutrients have been added to the product. Hmm..wonder why they were missing in the first place?
Safe bets to assure you are getting whole grains would include the following in an ingredient listing: oats, sprouted grains, quinoa, sorghum, spelt; brown, red, and black rice; bran.
Those who have met with me in consults know that I am famous for quoting Michael Pollan, NY Times writer and author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and my personal favorite Food Rules: An Eater's Manual. I do recommend the latter book as a quick read. In here, he lists 64 rules, or common-sense principles, that can easily be applied to life.
My favorite is Rule #19:
“If it’s a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.”
And then there’s Rule #36:
“Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of your milk.”
I know it’s hard to navigate food labels. Since COVID, I have not spent a great deal of time in grocery stores looking at labels; no lingering in the aisles taking pictures of labels like I used to. So, I admit I am not always on top of new products, but I’m always happy to review labels if you have any pictures you want to share with me.
My last rule of thumb— when looking at labels, look for products with fewer and simpler ingredients that you can actually pronounce!
In good health,